Over the weekend, during the wee hours of the morning, I came across a rather concerning infomercial from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God for viewers in the Los Angeles area. Religious infomercials are not uncommon and some others also spread misinformation, but this was especially troubling. I started watching around the 10-minute mark of this half-hour infomercial.

During one part of the ad, they talked about people – particularly children – with problems such as self-harm and auditory hallucinations. They said that scientists believe this is schizophrenia but that it’s actually paranormal activity and the way to get this treated is to come to the church. They even claimed that when children were untreated by the church, they would sometimes be swept away by the ocean by spirits who would suck them in.

They then showed a testimonial from a girl (I’m guessing preteen) who explained how she stabbed herself, saw and heard her dead father, and was incredibly angry at her living mother. She also mentioned how she almost got sucked up by the ocean while at the beach. At the end of her story, she said she then started going to church and everything is great now. This is dangerous misinformation to give and it breaks my heart that they would put such a young person on television to talk about this for their gain. She is very young and still possibly not in the right state of mind to fully realize everything that is happening to her right now. I am not against putting children on television per se, but it felt like they were exploiting her, and there was no mention of her getting any legitimate medical treatment. I am concerned about her wellbeing.

After that, there was a segment of one of the two pastors. He said the names of people who were dealing with hardships. He then put cards with their names on them into a tank of holy oil. He asked people to call in so they could receive the benefits of the oil. I believe part of the reason for this segment may have been to get people on the phone to convince them to visit the church and eventually give them money.

Pastor putting names in Holy Oil

Later on, there was a woman who explained that she was dealing with severe addiction, including crack cocaine use, but isn’t doing any of that anymore thanks to the church. Again, there was no mention of getting any treatment from a qualified medical professional.

I noticed in the testimonials of the girl and the woman that neither of them mentioned how the church helped them. They said they got better after going to the church, but they didn’t say how or what they experienced to go through this transformation. I also thought it was peculiar that the pastors only briefly mentioned that they were The Universal Church. I kept seeing “Stop Suffering” on the screen, as if that were the name of the organization. It was only after I searched for them online to see what they were about that I learned the full name of the church is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. I then read some highly negative reports about them, which makes me wonder if they intentionally shortened and barely featured the name because they wanted to make it harder for the viewers to find out what they were really about.

It turns out that this a Pentecostal church that believes in faith healing. This is a dangerous charade. There have been allegations and charges of fraud and money laundering. They have also been known in their locations throughout the world to scam people out of thousands of dollars. One scam is that they advise a member going through a hardship to buy expensive holy oil. There is no evidence that this has healing properties and there have been rumors that the oil is just olive oil bought from the local supermarket. On top of scamming people out of money, they are prolonging their congregants from getting any legitimate help, which could worsen their situations. By the time the victims realize this, their money may have been depleted, making it more difficult to get any real help.

When I share stories like this one with friends, most agree with me that there is something unethical going on. But some of them believe that the victims get what they deserve. I do not agree with this. It’s easy for some of us to spot these charlatans, but I try to imagine how I would view this ad if some things in my life were different.

In the case of the young girl, her father died when she was very young and she explained how hard that hit her. Not only is she young and going through a hardship, but she might have difficulty seeing a qualified doctor even if she demanded it, as she’s in the care of her parent. It is possible that her mother is also not in the clearest state of mind while dealing with this loss. The emotional pain of losing a spouse combined with probable added stress and financial hardships of now being a single parent might be making it hard for her to spot the harm the church is doing.

Even if I were an adult able to make my own decisions, it could still affect me. If I had a severe mental illness, I may not think as rationally as I normally would about how to get help. If my illness made me think there were evil spirits controlling my life and I saw an ad that said this was really happening and claimed to offer help, it’s not far-fetched that I would come to them to rid me of this life-altering problem.

Some of their congregants may not have proper access to medical care and/or educational resources. Imagine if you were dealing with severe drug addiction and couldn’t think as clearly because of this. You may not have a supportive family. Your friends might all be other addicts. You see an ad of a church that is walkable from where you are. On top of them supposedly offering help, there is a built-in community. It isn’t hard to see how someone could possibly be a victim. With worldwide membership estimated in the millions, this is a reality for many.

Pastor asks viewer to visit Compton, CA location

Here’s another barrier: In the case of the UCKG, many of the reputable sources reporting their scams are published in Portuguese, as the church started in Brazil and is most popular there. Some people may be unaware of tools like Google Translate, which isn’t perfect, but is helpful. This is another reason someone may be easier to scam, as the ad was aimed at English speakers in the Los Angeles area.

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health issue, please understand that it is an illness and can be treated medically. Please do not listen to the false information that it’s not a real illness because it’s “in the head” or that it’s actually something supernatural. Faith healing does not cure diseases and can be harmful when used instead of real treatment. Please consult a medical professional practicing science-based medicine. Like many other types of illnesses, there may be ups and downs to the treatment. You might have to try different things before you find what works best for you. It can sometimes be a long, frustrating process. But science-based medicine is the best method we currently have and it has saved and improved countless lives.